Celebrating Thanksgiving and Hanukkah as Jewish Women
Most of the time, I wear my American Jewishness with comfort and a minimum of tension. At this time of year, though, I tend to feel a little out of sync. On the Jewish calendar, we’ve just wrapped up a busy holiday season—an entire month punctuated by the rhythm of the High Holidays, Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. On the secular calendar, the holiday season is only just beginning, with Thanksgiving this year falling on November 28.
Both Thanksgiving and Hanukkah, which starts the evening of December 22, are, in fact, holidays about tension between cultures. Both offer myths of encounter and survival. And both offer opportunities to include our Americanness as well as our ethnic distinctiveness in family and communal celebrations, be it through turkey and cranberry sauce and eating latkes or reflections on our immigrant stories and lighting Hanukkah candles. We all navigate personal encounters in our daily lives to make sense of our hybrid identities—religious, ethnic, national, racial, gender and more. Since Hanukkah and Christmas coincide this year, the tensions between our hybrid identities are that much more explicit.
As a scholar of Jewish women’s history and as a third-generation American Jew, I am inspired by the Jewish women who paved the way for the deep, complex identities that we have the privilege of inhabiting and reshaping today. I’m thinking, for example, of Rosa Sonneschein, the editor of The American Jewess, the first national English-language publication for American Jewish women. The monthly magazine, which Sonneschein founded in 1895, not only reflected the emergence of this new identity of the “American Jewish woman” but helped define it. By covering subjects as varying as Zionism and dressmaking, suffrage and bicycle-riding as well as holidays such as Hanukkah and Thanksgiving, the magazine helped make the case that American Jewish women had a distinctive perspective.
Turn-of-the-last-century Jewish women such as Moravian-born Sonneschein valued both their Jewishness and their Americanness—and strove to apply the values of both cultures simultaneously. While pursuing new opportunities and rights for women, they argued that these were not, in fact, new liberties, but rather were consistent with Jewish tradition. As a contributor wrote in the article “The New Woman” in the July 1895 issue of The American Jewess:
Does the new woman manifest, with voice and pen, an interest in questions of national importance? Did not Miriam, the prophetess, sister of Moses, do the same as well as the other women in the days of Saul and David, and in still later days?… Does the new woman ask for more than just property rights? So did the daughters of Zelophehad and other women, and the Lord commanded that their claim be heeded….
Sonneschein herself assured her readers in a February 1898 article that “Rachel, the mother in Israel, need not weep for her American daughters. Although a new era has dawned with changed conditions, and although she takes part in the joys and sorrows of the nation and is eager to reach the new and the beautiful, she nevertheless remains Jewish in spirit, in feeling, in faith and in conviction.”
The centennial in 2020 of the passage of the 19th Amendment guaranteeing women the right to vote is a fitting opportunity to acknowledge the role of American Jewish women in expanding the possibilities of Jewish identity and experience in America. Suffrage activism served as an important mode of acculturation. The majority of American Jewish women supported the movement, recognizing that having the vote would open the door to fuller participation in civic life at a time when anti-Semitism still presented a barrier. They also saw this political activism as a way to make common cause with other American women and demonstrate Jewish contribution to American society. And once Jewish women had achieved greater rights in the secular public sphere, they also advocated for greater rights in the Jewish community.
Each night of Hanukkah, we increase the number of candles until we reach the eighth night with a full menorah.
Just as we build from one night of Hanukkah to the next, so might we approach our American Jewish identities, building on the experiences and careful work of those who came before us in shaping and defining American Jewish womanhood. The complicated reality of identities and cultural encounters cannot be fully captured in holidays like Hanukkah or Thanksgiving. Even so, knowing our past enables us to honor the richness, own the complexity and increase the joy of our 21st-century identities as American Jewish women.
Judith Rosenbaum, Ph.D., is executive director of the Jewish Women’s Archive.